Quick, try to think, out of all the film composers who exist in the whole world today, which one is the ‘best’, and most well-known. Probably eight out of ten of most people would think: Hans Zimmer. If you did, it was a good guess. If the names of all the film composers who still compose today were to be assembled, two impressive figures would stand out as most prominent: John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Really, it is hard to select only one of the two when it comes to the matter of who is the ‘best’ or ‘most well-known’. John Williams and Hans Zimmer are very different; they are famous for different reasons, and also prominent for different reasons. A comparison is certainly needed here…and though an argument could be made for ‘John Williams over Hans Zimmer’ on a list from greatest to least, all I will do here is compare the two:
First, John Williams. John Williams is without a doubt one of the best-known film composers in U.S. history. He is also the most awarded film composer in the history of the world. He is, come to think of it, also one of the most versatile. He was born in New York, on February 8, 1932. He started playing piano at a young age, and went on to study at UCLA for a short while, before being drafted into military service. After coming back from service, he began studying music at Juilliard, which is regarded as one of the most prestigious music schools in the world. During these years, he worked towards being a concert pianist. But when exposed to the competition, he changed his mind, and decided to, instead, be a composer. Returning to Los Angeles, he became a movie studio musician. After this, he began composing music for TV shows such as Gilligan’s Island, and Lost in Space. With his first nomination for Valley of the Dolls (1967), he went on to win an Academy Award for Fiddler on the Roof. He is best known for his collaborations with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, composing for nearly every single one of Spielberg’s films: Jaws, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, Munich, Schindler’s List, Memoirs of a Geisha, Empire of the Sun, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, etc. He also composed all six of Lucas’s Star Wars, and will be composing for the upcoming seventh Star Wars movie.
From all this, it can be deduced that John Williams was an ‘old school’ composer. His style is usually an innovative, traditional one, and his orchestrations are usually large and dramatic. However, as that style can be categorized with most of his works, like Superman, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Empire of the Sun, his range is vast, and there are many other movie soundtracks that don’t sound anything like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, for example. Schindler’s List theme for the most part is a violin solo. Memoirs of a Geisha is a melancholy makeup of orchestral, stand alone cello, and violin. Fiddler on the Roof is a traditional musical. Williams has also composed the Olympic Fanfare and Theme, and a bassoon concerto. A more recent film soundtrack of his is Lincoln; a mellow, 19th century style music. Listening to all of these soundtracks should give you an idea of how wide Williams’s range is, and how well his music can embody and strengthen these movies which are so different from each other.
In his continuing career, John Williams, at age 83, has composed for over 100 films, and has been nominated for Academy Awards 49 times, winning 4 of them, with many other wins being Golden Globes, Saturns, and Emmys, etc, making him the second most Oscar-nominated person in history, below Walt Disney, but being the most nominated living person.
“I have to say, without question, John Williams has been the single most significant contributor to my success as a filmmaker.” – Steven Spielberg
Second, Hans Zimmer. IMDB says: “Hans Zimmer is recognized as one of Hollywood’s most innovative musical talents.” Hans Zimmer never had a formal music education. I quote Zimmer: “I have no musical education. I had two weeks of piano lessons; that’s my formal education.”
Nevertheless, Hans Zimmer was interested in music. He began composing tunes and writing music using large analog synthesizers for television commercials in his early twenties. Not long afterwards, he founded the rock group The Buggles with two other musicians. They then produced the worldwide hit: “Video Killed the Radio Star”, which “made music history as the first piece ever broadcast on America’s music network MTV”. Turning from this to film composing was another step in Zimmer’s career. He became interested by film music mainly from works by composer Ennio Morricone, and was influenced in his compositions by Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, and John Barry. According to an All Music article: “it was a meeting with another film composer, Stanley Meyers, that led Zimmer into scoring for films and into a style using classical and electronic techniques.”
With this, Hans Zimmer dove into film composition. His major career turn came from his composition for Rain Man, which obtained him his first Oscar nomination. Hans Zimmer is most well known for Lion King which won various awards, including an Academy Award for Best Original Soundtrack, for Hans Zimmer. He is also known for his scores for Pirates of the Caribbean, Gladiator, Inception, Sherlock Holmes and Dark Knight.
From the same All Music article: “He [Hans Zimmer] says he developed a new action music style in Black Rain because he was trying to sound like John Williams and didn’t know how to.” 🙂
In an interview, Hans Zimmer said that he stays with the flow of film soundtrack composing by being constantly innovative for every single film that he composes to; always trying something new. No matter how different all his scores are, a definite default style can be depicted out of most of them. They tend to be rhythmic, simple chords, that continue for a while throughout the movie. The soundtrack to Inception is a good example of this, as is that of the Da Vinci Code, and the Dark Knight. However, there are always many exceptions; Dead Man’s Chest, and Gladiator, for example, bear a little resemblance to Inception, but are definitely more melodic and thematic. In general, though, Hans Zimmer keeps the melody down, and goes more for the rhythm, and the certain creative ways in which the chords will be used.
Among numerous awards, Zimmer has won the Lifetime Achievement Award in Film Composition from the National Board of Review, and currently resides in Los Angeles.
So there is the comparison for John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Two amazing, popular composers, but each with an obviously completely different history and style. I suggest you get a feel of each style by listening to various scores composed by both composers, and you’ll hear why they’re so different from each other. In your opinion, which composer is better? Who is your favorite film score composer? I’d like to hear others’ thoughts.
One of John Williams’s best film scores (for a shark):
One of Hans Zimmer’s best film scores (for an octopus):
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Michael’s Movie Mentions: James Horner: 1953-2015